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There are not many prouder Bradfordians than George Flanagan. As someone who gets to represent his hometown club every week on a rugby field, Flanagan has a deep affection with his home city. But recently, after encountering his own personal struggles, Flanagan has an extra reason to take pride in Bradford following a new initiative devised by his friends to tackle mental health.

The 34-year-old, who is currently serving a ten-match ban after being found guilty of attacking an opponent’s testicles during the Bulls’ match with Featherstone, is not afraid to admit that he has recently sought help for his own mental health problems. But in mental health awareness week, Flanagan has also worked closely with two of his friends to try and ensure the people of Bradford, still one of the most socially-deprived cities in the UK, are able to access help too.

Flanagan has been a champion of The Speak In Club, launched by Elliott Cousins and Neil Wall – and after experiencing his own mental health problems, he is only too aware of how support at a difficult period could be the difference between two very different outcomes in life.

“Elliott and Neil got in touch and asked if I’d be able to give them some support,” Flanagan tells Thirteen. “They’re doing such an incredible job; they started out with one venue, and now it’s going from strength to strength, with clubs all over Bradford on a weekly basis.”

The Speak In Club’s mantra is simple: to tackle mental health for people of all ages, gender and background in Bradford. Already, they have three groups on Wednesday evenings across the city, and offer a safe, confidential environment for Bradfordians to seek help with their mental health.

“It’s not the happiest of places, Bradford,” Flanagan laughs. “But The Speak In Club are trying to change that. They do walking groups, they offer professional advice, and they’re putting themselves out there. The people involved have made such a difference. I’m really outgoing, and I never used to believe I had any issues with my mental health. But I’m fortunate I had a support base around me. Some other people might not be as lucky, and that’s where they can help.”

Flanagan admits he is currently enduring the toughest period of his career, after receiving such a significant suspension. It will still be several weeks before he can return to the field with the Bulls, and he admits the pain of that ban, plus the speculation it cast upon him as an individual, left him needing to seek his own help.

“I’m open enough to admit that I’ve been getting help from Sporting Chance, and I went to Rugby League Cares too,” he says. “Without them, I don’t think I’d have got through it. They’ve been absolutely brilliant. Just meeting a stranger, which I did at a hotel in Leeds, he went through parts of his life that were very personal to him and it encouraged me to speak out too. We were honest about our own stories, and I think that’s the way you’ve got to be.”

Flanagan continued: “It’s been a tough period in my life. I genuinely wasn’t sure how it all came about – I was taken aback by the grading from the Match Review Panel, and I’ve watched that video of the alleged incident a million times. I’ve had to take the ban on the chin, but that isn’t the way it happened at all.

“I couldn’t get my head around it. I couldn’t face myself to go out of the house, I was genuinely house-bound for a couple of weeks and couldn’t come to terms with it. I can’t thank the club, John Kear and the players enough: they’ve been there for me. They’ve got me through it, and I know other people might not be as lucky.”

Flanagan received a hostile backlash on social media – and with his mental health already fragile, he made the decision an increasing number of people are choosing to do: walk away from social media for a period.

“I get everyone has their opinion, but it’s the negative ones that stick with you,” he says. “I’m really active on social media and I put myself out there, but when you’re verbally attacked and getting abuse for something that’s painted you in a bad light, I just didn’t want to be part of it for a while. You might get 100 positive comments, but it’s that one negative one that sticks with you. It’s pretty horrible, and it left me really low.”

But Flanagan has had his day job, his family and his personal investment into The Speak In Club to keep him going. His ban will eventually end, but Flanagan will remain involved with his friends as they attempt to change the perception of mental health for the better in Bradford.

“They’re just good lads from Bradford who are encouraging people to get the help they need,” Flanagan says. “They’re helping people in a city that doesn’t always have everything going for it. They’re spreading a positive message of mental health, and I know I’m lucky to have had the support I’ve had. If you need to talk, go visit The Speak In Club. Talking makes a massive difference. It did everything for me.”

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